Church music always has and always will be a hot topic in church culture. The expression and execution of music in the church has become one of the largest dividing factors within denominations. Regardless of whether a person holds contemporary or traditional preferences, it seems that most have heard of or discussed the prevalent allegations that contemporary Christian music is “dumbed down” or too “cookie cutter.” If you’re a church musician, you know as well as I do that as long as you can play I, IV, V, and vi (maybe a ii) chords in any pattern, you’re good to go. This same statement is true with modern pop music as well. I’m not here to discuss modern music culture as a whole, but rather, I’d like to address the following questions: have we lost the art in church music, and what are the primary goals of worship music?
If you study music history, you know that the church, up until the last half century, has been the trendsetter for music. Many of the best composers, musicians, and venues were commissioned by the church. If you wanted to hear good music and hear it performed well, the church was a great place to do so. However, during the Reformation, Martin Luther realized that church music was not congregational and fought to redefine worship by writing choral hymns in the vernacular instead of Latin. Even during the Counter-Reformation, it is said that the Council of Trent worried that music for the Mass had over complicated itself. Legend has it that the famous composer Palestrina tried to save the polyphonic writing style in the church by simplifying his musical composition of The Pope Marcellus Mass to not distract from the lyrics. But have we swung too far in this direction? Has worship music lost most of its artistic expression and resulted in a far too simplistic music genre?
As a musician who has played in church for 20 years and led worship for almost 15 years, I have developed my own set of goals that I’d like to achieve within a worship set. My wife Emily and I always have trouble nailing down a song list each week for our church, not because we procrastinate, but because we care deeply about the songs and lyrics we sing over our congregation. We are always analyzing the message of the lyrics, making sure the melodies are singable, deciding whether or not it’s a song our band can pull off, and if we simply resonate with the song. One of our greatest desires and goals for a worship set is participation from the congregation.
I remember when the song So Will I (100 Billion X) by Hillsong United came out. I sat listening to the artistry of the arrangement and the depth of the lyrics. My connection with the song ran deep. However, I thought that because of the wordiness of the melody, it would not translate well into a congregational setting. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, we decided to play the song on a Sunday anyway. Before we started the song, someone from the congregation came up and gave testimony of what the Lord had been revealing to them that week. Through some difficult circumstances, the Lord had brought comfort and revelation to them through the song So Will I which we were about to introduce. Because of this story being shared about the song, there was an instant connection between the congregation and the song that was not expected. On the contrary, we’ve introduced songs in the past that we thought would connect instantly but that never really stuck.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of having a Q&A lunch with the band All Sons and Daughters. I asked Leslie, the lead vocalist and guitarist, what she thought made a song congregational and how they implemented it in their songwriting. I remember her response being something along the lines of, “I don’t think it’s just the structure of the melody or what chords you put to the song. We write songs about stories that come out of our church.” I think her point was, their church had ownership of the songs because they came from their experiences. Regardless of the song’s complexity or simplicity, people worship to songs they feel connected to or that make them feel connected to God. So, give people a connection point. Share the story behind the song or why it draws you to a place of worship.
It is very common for a contemporary worship song to repeat the same phrase over and over, compared to a hymn that has recurring melodies, but varying lyrics verse by verse. This is another common complaint I hear about modern worship songs. My defense to this is that sometimes we have to say something over and over before we actually believe it. Singing the lyrics, “You are good, good, oh” over and over seems “surface level” and “dumbed down.” However, actually believing that God is good in every circumstance is a hard thing to grasp. These simple phrases or melodies in songs are not only easy to catch on to, but they’re usually built around a simple recurring progression. This makes it easy to build upon. For example, when Emily and I are leading worship, we are constantly praying and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to us what needs to be prayed over the room. If He reveals the theme of peace, we will sing a new improvisational melody over the recurring progression. It’s in these moments that we’ve found true breakthrough in our worship and invited the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit to be active. It’s easier to do this when it’s a recurring, four chord progression compared to the chordal, counterpoint style with a sixteen-bar, double period phrased progression often utilized in hymns. Please don’t misunderstand and think that I am against hymns. I love their rich theology and the historical heritage they offer. I am only trying to point out that just because a melodic phrase is simple and recurring doesn’t mean it has to be “surface level.”
From a functional standpoint, many modern worship songs are written to be easily played by non-professionals. In the past, you needed an accomplished pianist or organist to accompany hymn singing. Now, it’s a lot easier for someone who is a beginner to jump in and at least strum a few chords on a guitar for the accompaniment. However, this should not eliminate the need for accomplished musicians in the church or lower the standard of excellence. It should simply open the door for more participation from musicians of all levels.
Just because a song is built upon a four chord progression doesn’t mean it has to be musically boring or uncreative. I’ve heard amazing musicians build complex and beautiful melodies over top just one or two chords. Yes, a modern worship song can be led by a beginner guitar student strumming only the downbeats of each chord, but it can also be led with a creative arrangement played with a six piece band where each instrument has detailed, intricate parts to offer. The same goes with a hymn. I don’t have to play Amazing Grace by reading the music straight out of the hymnal. I could simply strum three chords on my guitar for accompaniment. The arrangement of a song can be as creative as you want it to be, regardless of the progression.
My prayer is that musical preference will no longer prevent people from being able to worship or participate in a congregational setting. Let’s check our hearts. We need to find a way to connect with the Father and declare His worth even when it’s a song or style we don’t enjoy. Whether it’s hymnal singing or the most cutting-edge worship setting, let’s make the choice to overcome our preferences and set our hearts toward Him.
- Aaron Davis